The Search for Self-Worth: and The Role of Perfectionism Among Adolescent Females

Adolescence can be a very confusing and stressful time for females.  Over the years, many have looked at the significance of self-worth among girls and women.  Factors such as education, media influence, and peer pressure are just a few of the areas that have been studied regarding how women and girls develop self-worth.

1]Mary Phipher, PhD, and author of “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of Adolescent Girls,” describes adolescence as a time when the dreams of little girls are shattered, and the harsh expectations of an adult reality begin to set in. 

It has been my experience that many adolescent girls describe and flesh out the harsh reality that Phiper talks about under the guise of perfectionism.  This perfectionism is often rooted in the information they receive from the culture and other influential environments (including home, school, church, sports etc.), and can be seen in their behavior and thinking patterns. For example consider this quote from the book “Exploring Relational Aggression: Counseling Girls to Manage Conflict and Anger.”

2] Note that this girl had just received a subscription to a teen magazine that leads her to this conclusion:

“The key concept was that, regardless of what else I would ever be occupied with, I would always inexorably be a contestant in a perpetual beauty contest, vying for the approval and attention of a male judge. As I understood it, this facet of female existence was inescapable, as it was the greatest determinant of one’s worth. It therefore became necessary to do all I could, utilizing makeup, diet tips, and anything else which would aid my place as number one in the lifelong contest. I soon stumbled upon another invaluable piece of knowledge: if the postulate that life was a perpetual beauty contest was true, then it logically held true that every girl, everywhere, was my competitor.”

What are some Common thinking patterns and where do they come from?

Examples of negative thinking that commonly lead to perfectionism and the loss of self-worth/esteem include:

  1. I must always be nice, pleasant
  2. I must do what others expect me to do (parents, friends, leaders, and media) or else I am a failure
  3. I will never be at pretty as…or able to do…what is the point of trying?

Where do Girl’s get the idea they must be perfect?

 Parents and society at times, play a role in fostering these negative thinking patterns when they intentionally or unintentionally begin rejecting some of  behaviors and begin teaching the importance of sacrificing their own genuine wholeness for social acceptability.  [3]This restriction results in what Brown (2003) termed the “tyranny of kind and nice” (i.e., they are expected to please others).  This often translates into a strong message for girls to restrict their expression of anger and to consider others’ feelings before their own.

Listed below are some other examples of how girls develop this idea.

  1. Movie stars, singers, and other performer’s bodies are cropped on computers and presented to young women through the media as ideal.
  2. Friend groups begin to form based on dress, popularity, and personality.
  3. Their bodies begin to change, boys starts to notice and respond.  This experience is like shell shock to some young women, and cause questions to cycle in the mind such as “What do I do, what does all this mean?”

Suddenly, what was simple before becomes complicated and what once meant absolutely nothing now means everything.

 So you ask, how do I get through this crisis of adolescence with my self worth in tact, or how do I get my child and myself though this time as well?

Here are a few pointers:

  1. Let go of the idea that you/your child must “Do” or achieve something to be significant.  Accept your child as they are, and foster the things you/they value and they will be more likely to succeed.
  2. Dispute negative thinking styles like those listed above.
  3. Focus on positive things you or your child does and make a list of only the positive things at the end of each day.
  4.  Set realistic goals you/your child can meet.
  5.  Allow your-self free time to relax and play – be away from one another and consider her opinion before making any decision.
  6.  Do not magnify small physical or biological deficits-see them as they are and be realistic.

Jessica Cleveland M.S., LPC, NCC


[1] Pipher, M. (2002). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. NewYork: Ballantine Books.

[2] Choate, L. A. (2008).  Girls and women’s values: Contemporary counseling issues and interventions. American Counseling Association.

[3] Brown, L. M. (2003). Girlfighting: Betrayal and rejection among girls. New

York: New York University Press.

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